Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top 5 Albums of 2008

Dan's Top 5:

OK, this is admittedly a bit premature, but I really don't see any part of my list changing in the last two weeks of the year. I also realize that these albums were stumbled on by myself alone, so consider these my official recommendations for the year.

1. Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke - I got this album not even a month ago, and already Ladyhawke (alias of Pip Brown) has broken my top 5 on This album summons ghosts of the 80's and never fails - it's like The Killers if they didn't go downhill after their first album. And if Brandon Flowers were even more of a woman than he already is. (Just kidding, Brandon.) There are no weak tracks at all, and it would be hard to even put together a top 5 list of tracks from this album. Look for that list in the future, because I'm all about trying to rank things that defy rankability. (Best song - "My Delirium")

2. Darker My Love - 2 - What I like about this album is that it has a wide range of influences. I can pick out a bit of early-era Black Sabbath, some U2, and even some earlier Snow Patrol. There's no single thing that makes this album particularly jump out at you, but it's solid, it sounds really good, and it has no weak tracks. If it got a bit more press, it would be one of those albums that will "save rock music." (Best song - "Pale Sun")

3. MGMT - Oracular Spectacular - This whole album is made of drugs. Then again, most of the classic albums throughout history are. But this is more like pure electro insanity. Overall, the sound is very original and fresh, and the first half of the album will just blow you away. The later tracks are a bit weak, though, which drives this album down the list. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some ecstasy to pop. (Best song - "Time to Pretend")

4. Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple - You know it's a good year in music when Gnarls Barkley winds up this far down my list. This is another sophomore release that initially failed to live up to the strength of the debut album, only to become far more listenable as time goes on. And my, how it has since rebounded in my playlist. It's good to know that these guys are not just a flash in the pan. (Best song - "Going On")

5. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend - Yeah, they're cheesy and über-white, but damn it, the music is catchy nonetheless. Though I will never forgive them for the annoying single "A-Punk," the whole album is vaguely reminiscent of Paul Simon's Graceland, Peter Gabriel, or some other African-laced 80's album. Hey, apartheid was horrible and all, but at least there was some great music to come out of it, right? (Best song - "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa")

Honorable Mention: Kanye West - 808s & Heartbreak, Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, Muse - H.A.A.R.P. (Quite awesome, but easily bumped to make room for studio albums.)

Ryan's Top 5:

Once again I am reminded of how un-current my tastes are... even the new stuff I get into tends to be a year old (see M.I.A.). Anyway, here goes:

1. Ladyhawke - Ladyhawke - I really can't stress enough how much I like this album. If I were growing up in the 80's and Ladyhawke was around, I'd truly have been obsessed. As it stands I'm doing my best to get obsessed now, and so far it seems to be working. She might be my biggest musical crush since Muse? Favorites: Paris is Burning, From Dusk Till Dawn, Magic, Back of the Van, My Delirium, I mean, the whole damn album.

2. Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple - A great follow-up to their debut album, and somehow they still seem to be under the radar, so their semi-underground appeal is maintained and they aren't omnipresent. Favorites: Run, Going On, A Little Better.

3. Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak - I love this album. I love this album a lot more than his last two albums. "Paranoid" might be my favorite song of the year, and it's certainly in my top 5 (list forthcoming, I'm sure, at some point).

4. Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs - Not nearly as good as previous albums, but whatever.

5. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords - This album's placement at #5 is probably more a sign of how little new music I listen to than its overall greatness. Don't get me wrong, FOTC is one of the best things to happen this decade, but after the show/comedy acts this album was pretty underwhelming for me. There are numerous glaring omissions (I'm Not Crying, Sello Tape, If You're Into It, Bret You Got It Going On) and this album's version of "Robots" is maybe the worst there is (still good, but the eighteen youtube versions, and of course the show version, are better). Anyway, enough being an FOTC nerd, this album still kicked ass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Top 5 Movies You Saw For the First Time This Year

Tim's Top 5:

I've not seen much in the way of movies this year in the theater (I think a total of six), but by my count I've seen 37 movies for the first time this year through finally watching DVDs I own, Netflix, or going to the theater.

1. Elevator to the Gallows - Louis Malle's debut film captures the inevitability and femme fatale aspects of film noir, but spins it in an unforeseen direction. The absurdism is certainly convenient and it requires suspension of disbelief, but the whole saga seems so plagued with fatalism that it feels real. The characters are a bit stock, but the scenario feels fresh 40 years later, and the Miles Davis score is unmatched. I'm embarrassed it took me this long to watch the movie, since I'd owned it since law school.

2. The Last Waltz - To make a concert film of The Band excellent was not something I anticipated would be all that easy, I was hardly a fan of their work. So after they'd played The Weight and Up on Cripple Creek, I really didn't think there'd be any reason to watch. Not so much. It's a fantastic concert from start to finish and the segments where Scorsese interviews The Band are pretty interesting as well.

3. United 93 - If 7 years of misguided responses to September 11 seem to have robbed you of how the day felt, this movie might just reopen those wounds. It brought a lot of gut responses back to me and put me right back in the place where I had been that morning. You know how the movie will end, but it's relentless and forces you to make a serious emotional investment in its outcome. It's a triumph of a film that feels heroic and disastrous all at once, but if nothing else, serves as a reminder of one of the most gut-wrenching days in American history.

4. Once - A nearly perfect film, even if it is functionally plotless. The charm of the two leads is immeasurable and their chemistry is flawless. Add Grafton Street and some other Dublin locales that made it feel relate-able, and you've got a can't-miss film. It doesn't, either, and refuses to take the most obvious path at any point.

5. The Dark Knight - I don't know if Heath Ledger deserves an Oscar, because I haven't seen much of any movies that came out this year, but it was a transformative performance. Though it reads as a political screed as much as a film, Batman's moral ambiguity and the willingness to destroy the sequel that was seemingly being set up pays off in spades. Like Casino Royale, it breathed new life into a film series that had a chance of going too far off the rails. The bad news is that the next film is almost certainly going to be worse (hence, the middling Quantum of Solace not appearing on this list).

Honorable mention: Pan's Labyrinth - I never would have thought it possible to like this movie based on what I'd read, but it's superbly-made and plays very straightforward for what is effectively a fairy tale; Standard Operating Procedure - one of Errol Morris' weaker films, but it personalizes the Abu Ghraib saga more than I'd have imagined possible; The Battle of Algiers - a surprisingly even-handed treatment of the Algerian conflict that relates a story others should have learned from in later conflicts like Vietnam; Iron Man - if anyone is ever cast as me in a movie, I'm hoping it will be Robert Downey Jr. He carries this movie single-handedly and brings a lot of humor to what could have been an overly fawning superhero film. Jon Favreau's direction recognized the humor available in the premise and maximizes it while making it modern.

Dan's Top 5:

As far as I can tell, I've watched 60 movies this year, so this is really hard.

1. Schindler's List - I thought that I wouldn't get this movie. It's about the Holocaust, after all, to which I feel no personal connection at all. But really, this is an excellent film showcasing the essentials of human decency amidst the most senseless of human ferocity. That Steven Spielberg made it is even more astounding, since he had mainly been a director for family-friendly blockbuster movies. At least he doesn't have to worry about which of his movies will be remembered as his best.

2. The Dark Knight - Very seldom is it that I go into a movie theater expecting to be blown away. (Even Best Picture contenders lately leave a lot to be desired.) Even more seldom is the case when the film in question surpasses that already high expectation. What likely seemed a strong movie on paper was taken to a completely different level by the performance of Heath Ledger, which turned the movie into a psychological - and at times philosophical - thriller reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs..

3. Wall-E - Every time Pixar releases a movie, I end up saying it's their best yet. I was fully convinced that Ratatouille was going to be the studio's peak and that the narrative quality would start to decline. The movie manages to accomplish so much with the bare minimum of dialogue, expressing character and emotion through imagery alone. It also accomplishes the remarkable feat of getting you to think about environmental concerns and consumerism without making it some forced political message in disguise. Oh, and if Peter Gabriel doesn't get an academy award for "Down To Earth," I will probably destroy something in my apartment.

4. Network - I didn't really know what to expect of this film going in, other than it was a classic. The level of farce in the story increases ever-so-gradually from completely believable to a level of absurdity matched only by the Bush administration. Personally, I think it would make for a good stage adaptation. It remains a powerful movie even now, when there are starting to emerge people, like me, who don't even watch television.

5. Dark Days - This is, to date, the best documentary film I've seen. It follows a series of homeless people who have taken refuge near abandoned Amtrak tracks near Penn Station. All the characters are engaging and often funny in the face of very hard circumstances. The film actually follows a natural plot rather than meandering from one didactic segment to another a la Bowling for Columbine (which I did like). Most importantly, it ends up being pretty uplifting and shows you what human potential really can be. Feel free to use this movie when battling conservatives.

Honorable Mention: Juno, There Will Be Blood, Do The Right Thing, The Third Man, Into The Wild

Ryan's Top 5:

Perhaps solely for this blog, and to feed my ever-growing OCD, I should start keeping track of movies I watch. (I don't.) So these are my top 5 as best as I can recollect.

1. There Will Be Blood - As much as I disdain anything that's not a comedy, this movie was truly brilliant and veritably flawless. You don't see many true modern tragedies, but this surely was one, and a stellar one.

2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall - This movie was A) hilarious, B) heartwarming, C) well-acted with funny actors, and D) funnier than 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (comparative as all are Apatow movies). Jason Segel and Russell Brand are particularly great. It also boasts a Dracula musical with puppets from Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

3. Wall-E - Differs slightly in tone from my choice for #1. I can't say that I circle calendar dates in anticipation of PIXAR movies, but they really deserve praise for their writing. Animation aside, they rarely make bad movies; some are better than others, sure, but have they ever made anything completely bad? I don't think so, and there have been plenty of shit-tastic 3D animation movies (that shark piece of trash that I actually saw in a theater comes to mind). Anyway, Wall-E may be their best effort to date. I don't have kids, but if I did, this seemingly would be the perfect movie to take them to.

4. The Dark Knight - I think Tim and Dan said it better than I could. I will say that when movies are talked up so much it almost always affects my reaction to the film adversely. This was not the case here, though, as The Dark Knight delivered. And for days after the film I was wiki'ing Batman and hypothesizing who would be the villain in the sequel.

5. Be Kind Rewind - Did critics dislike this movie? I guess it wasn't as funny as you'd hope a Jack Black/Mos Def movie would be, but... on second thought, wasn't it? I dunno, I loved it. Michel Gondry does not disappoint.

Honorables: Run, Fatboy, Run (probably a dumb movie, but I laughed a lot); No Country for Old Men (saw it on DVD in March or so); Dewey Cox (honorable in that I really thought it would suck and it was actually worth RedBoxing, pretty funny); W. (either I'm not smart enough or not politically-inclined enough to expound on the film's realism/lack thereof, but I enjoyed it...the press conference scenes, taken from Real Actual Life, are pretty damn painful); Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., is one of my favorite actors, and Tim's right, this film minus him is forgettable).

Dishonorables: Semi-Pro (do not watch this film--repeat, do NOT watch this film); Strange Wilderness (I wasted money on renting this, blagghgh); 21 (classic case of I-read-the-book-first-and-therefore-this-movie-sucks, but come on, they distort reality so much it hurts); Leatherheads (should have been better/funnier than it was); Harold and Kumar Escape... (not a good movie, at all, in any sense, and I liked the first one); Made of Honor (N.B. I did not actually see this movie but I conjecture it is the worst Pile of Suck ever created, look at the fucking title and forget about it, Jesus, do not see this movie); Indiana Jones (we waited 20 goddamn years for THIS?!?!); An American Carol (see my critique of Made of Honor).